Winston S. Churchill, Great Contemporaries, London, 1938
Perhaps the finest testimony to the life and work of Robert Baden-Powell was written by
Sir Winston Churchill. In his book, Great Contemporaries,
Churchill collected a series of newspaper and magazine articles he had written from 1928
to 1937 on the lives of "the Great Men of our Age." He wrote in the preface:
"Although each (article) is self-contained, they throw, from various angles, a light
upon the main course of the events through which we have lived."
Winston Churchill is best remembered for his courageous leadership of the British people
during the Second World War. His early career began on the same path as Baden-Powell's. He
attended an English public school and the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. He was
posted to the cavalry, and served in both India and Africa. He moved on from the military
to his own "second life," first as a war correspondent and writer, and finally,
into a long career in politics and public service. He was one of the most significant
statesman of the Twentieth Century.
Churchill served in many important Cabinet positions, and was twice Prime Minister of
Great Britain (1940-1945 and 1951-1955). He remained an active and prolific author. Among
his major works are: The History of the English Speaking People, The Second World War,
The World Crisis (a history of the First World War), and the Life of Marlborough.
Churchill was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.
Baden-Powell, or B.-P., was
one of Churchill's "Great Men of our Age." His portrait, as painted by Sir
Winston Churchill follows.
"B. - P. "
THE THREE most famous generals I have
known in my life won no great battles over the foreign foe. Yet their names, which all
begin with a B, are household words. They are General Booth, General Botha and General
Baden-Powell. To General Booth we owe the Salvation Army; to General Botha, United South
Africa; and to General Baden-Powell, the Boy Scout Movement.
In this uncertain world one cannot be
sure of much. But it seems probable that one or two hundred years hence, or it may be
more, these three monuments that we have seen set up in our lifetime will still proclaim
the fame of their founders, not in the silent testimony of bronze or stone, but as
institutions guiding and shaping the lives and thoughts of men.
I remember well the first time I saw the
hero of this article, now Lord Baden-Powell. I had gone with my regimental team to play in
the Cavalry Cup at Meerut. There was a great gathering of the sporting and social circles
of the British Army in India. In the evening an amateur vaudeville entertainment was given
to a large company. The feature of this was a sprightly song and dance by an officer of
the garrison, attired in the brilliant uniform of an Austrian Hussar, and an attractive
lady. Sitting as a young lieutenant in the stalls, I was struck by the quality of the
performance, which certainly would have held its own on the boards of any of our
music-halls. I was told:
"That's B.-P. An amazing man! He won
the Kader Cup, has seen lots of active service. They think no end of him as a rising
soldier; but fancy a senior officer kicking his legs up like that before a lot of
I was fortunate in making the
acquaintance of this versatile celebrity before the polo tournament was over.
Three years passed before I met him
again. The scene and the occasion were very different. Lord Roberts' army had just entered
Pretoria, and General Baden-Powell, who had been relieved in Mafeking after a siege of 217
days, was riding in two or three hundred miles from the Western Transvaal to report to the
Commander-in-Chief. I thought I would interview him on behalf of the Morning Post and get
a first-hand account of his famous defense.
We rode together for at least an hour, and once he got talking he was magnificent. I was
thrilled by the tale, and he enjoyed the telling of it. I cannot remember the details but
my telegram must have filled the best part of a column. Before dispatching it I submitted
to him. He read it with concentrated attention and some signs of embarrassment, but when
he had finished he handed it back to me, saying with a smile, "Talking to you is like
talking to a phonograph." I was rather pleased with it, too.
In those days B.-P.'s fame as a soldier
eclipsed almost all popular reputations. The other B.P, the British Public, looked upon
him as the outstanding hero of the War. Even those who disapproved of the War, and derided
the triumphs of large, organized armies over the Boer farmers, could not forbear to cheer
the long, spirited, tenacious defense of Mafeking by barely eight hundred men against a
beleaguering force ten or twelve times their numbers.
No one had ever believed Mafeking could hold out half as long. A dozen times, as the siege
dragged on, the watching nation had emerged from apprehension and despondency into renewed
hope, and had been again cast down. Millions who could not follow closely or accurately
the main events of the War looked day after day in the papers for the fortunes of
Mafeking, and when finally the news of its relief was flashed throughout the world, the
streets of London became impassable, and the floods of sterling cockney patriotism were
released in such a deluge of unbridled, delirious, childish joy as was never witnessed
again until Armistice Night, 1918. Nay, perhaps the famous Mafeking night holds the
Then the crowds were untouched by the
ravages of war. They rejoiced with the light-hearted frenzy of the spectators of a great
sporting event. In 1918 thankfulness and a sense of deliverance overpowered exultation.
All bore in their hearts the marks of what they had gone through. There were too many
ghosts about the streets after Armageddon.
One wondered why B.-P. seemed to drop out
of the military hierarchy after the South African War was over. He held distinguished
minor appointments; but all the substantial and key positions were parceled out among men
whose achievements were unknown outside military circles, and whose names had never
received the meed of popular applause.
There is no doubt that Whitehall resented
the disproportionate acclamation which the masses had bestowed upon a single figure. Was
there not something "theatrical", "unprofessional" in a personality
which evoked the uninstructed enthusiasms of the man-in-the-street? Versatility is always
distrusted in the Services. The voice of detraction and professional jealousy spoke of him
as Harley Street would speak of the undoubted cures wrought by a quack. At any rate, the
bright fruition of fortune and success was soon obscured by a chilly fog through which
indeed the sun still shone, but with a dim and baffled ray.
The caprices of fortune are incalculable,
her methods inscrutable. Sometimes when she scowls most spitefully, she is preparing her
most dazzling gifts. How lucky for B.-P. that he was not in the early years of the century
taken into the central swim of military affairs, and absorbed in all those arduous and
secret preparations which ultimately enabled the British Expeditionary Army to deploy for
battle at Mons!
How lucky for him, and how lucky for us
all! To this he owes his perennially revivifying fame, his opportunity for high personal
service of the most enduring character; and to this we owe an institution and an
inspiration, characteristic of the essence of British genius, and uniting in a bond of
comradeship the youth not only of the English-speaking world, but of almost every land and
people under the sun.
It was in 1907 that B.-P. held his first
camp for boys to learn the lore of the backwoods and the discipline of Scout life.
Twenty-one boys of every class from the East End of London, from Eton and Harrow, pitched
their little tents on Brownsea Island in Dorsetshire. From this modest beginning sprang
the world-wide movement of Boy Scouts and girl guides, constantly renewing itself as the
years pass, and now well over two million strong.
In 1908 the Chief Scout, as he called himself, published his book, Scouting for Boys. It
appealed to all the sense of adventure and love of open-air life which is so strong in
youth. But beyond this it stirred those sentiments of knightly chivalry, of playing the
game - any game - earnest or fun - hard and fairly, which constitute the most important
part of the British system of education.
Success was immediate and far-reaching.
The simple uniform, khaki shorts and a shirt - within the range of the poorest - was
founded upon that of General Baden-Powell's old corps, the South African Constabulary. The
hat was the famous hat with the flat brim and pinched top which he had worn at Mafeking.
The motto "Be Prepared" was founded on his initials. Almost immediately we saw
at holiday times on the roads of Britain little troops and patrols of Boy Scouts, big and
small, staff in hand, trudging forward hopefully, pushing their little handcart with their
kit and camping gear towards the woodlands and parklands which their exemplary conduct
speedily threw open to them. Forthwith there twinkled the camp fires of a vast new army
whose ranks will never be empty, and whose march will never be ended while red blood
courses in the veins of youth.
It is difficult to exaggerate the moral
and mental health which our nation has derived from this profound and simple conception.
In those bygone days the motto "Be Prepared" had a special meaning for our
country. Those who looked to the coming of a great war welcomed the awakening of British
boyhood. But no one, even the most resolute pacifist, could be offended; for the movement
was not militaristic in character, and even the sourest, crabbiest critic saw in it a way
of letting off youthful steam.
The success of the Scout movement led to its imitation in many countries, notably in
Germany. There, too, the little troops began to march along the roads already trampled by
The Great War swept across the world. Boy
Scouts played their part. Their keen eyes were added to the watchers along the coasts; and
in the air raids we saw the spectacle of children of twelve and fourteen performing with
perfect coolness and composure the useful functions assigned to them in the streets and
Many venerable, famous institutions and
systems long honoured by men perished in the storm; but the Boy Scout Movement survived.
It survived not only the War, but the numbing reactions of the aftermath. While so many
elements in the life and spirit of the victorious nations seemed to be lost in stupor, it
flourished and grew increasingly. Its motto gathers new national significance as the years
unfold upon our island. It speaks to every heart its message of duty and honor: "Be
Prepared" to stand up faithfully for Right and Truth, however the winds may blow.
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Copyright © Lewis P. Orans, 1997
Last Modified: 8:57 PM on January 2, 1997